As the COVID-19 pandemic explodes into a full-blown public health and economic crisis, states around the country are beginning to recognize that now is not the time to assess and collect fees and fines in the criminal legal system. These emergency reforms are win-win: Families keep the money they need for daily survival, and criminal courts free up their time and attention to concentrate on more pressing issues.
What’s been overlooked is that juvenile courts also charge fees and fines to children and their families, who desperately need relief from these harmful and costly practices. A moratorium on fees and fines in juvenile courts across the country would have the immediate effect of alleviating an economic and emotional burden for youth and families, and a needless administrative burden on the courts.
In most states, juvenile courts bill children and their parents or guardians a host of administrative fees, including for diversion, detention, supervision, testing and even representation by a “free” attorney. Juvenile courts can also fine youth as a form of punishment. This may sound sensible, however even in a good economy, most young people can’t earn the money to pay fines and may not even be old enough to hold a job.
Juvenile bills, which quickly add up to thousands of dollars, force families to choose between paying for necessities like food, rent and utilities and paying the court, which also exacts a severe emotional toll. Because the juvenile system disproportionately punishes black and brown children and children from low-income families, assessing and collecting fees and fines during the pandemic will cause the greatest harm to some of our most vulnerable families.
Models for reform
The good news is that state and local jurisdictions have recently started to move away from juvenile court debt. California, Nevada and New Jersey abolished juvenile fees or fines, and both houses of the Maryland legislature passed a juvenile fees and fines repeal bill on the last day before adjourning because of the pandemic. Cities and counties in states as diverse as Kansas, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Wisconsin have all ended at least some juvenile fees.
The common thread of reform is that the costs of charging youth and their families far outweigh the benefits. Most justice-involved youth come from families who cannot pay fees and fines, so revenue is low. Sadly, monetary sanctions actually increase youth recidivism. Although revenue is low, the debt burden on families can be enormous — after juvenile fee repeal in California, families still owed counties more than $374 million.
The growing state and local reforms provide much-needed long-term solutions, but in the face of an overwhelming economic crisis, youth and families need immediate help. Many state and local governments have responded to this pandemic by suspending evictions, releasing inmates, reducing jail admissions and waiving medical insurance co-pays. We need the same kind of rapid problem-solving for juvenile fees and fines.
Although many legislatures are temporarily shuttered, governors, judges and probation chiefs can act now to relieve youth and families of juvenile fees and fines:
- Governors should use their emergency authority to suspend state laws and regulations that authorize the assessment and collection of juvenile fees and fines. They can order state taxing authorities to stop wage garnishments, bank levies and tax intercepts.
- Juvenile court judges should not impose any discretionary fees or fines, and should order a halt to all collections. They should also suspend all consequences for nonpayment, including accrual of interest and further punishment.
- Juvenile probation chiefs should end the assessment and collection of all fees and fines and should waive the requirement that fees or fines be paid as a condition of successfully completing probation, or that any services or supports for youth be conditioned on payment.
As the country comes together for vulnerable communities on so many fronts, state and local officials should give youth and families a much-needed break by imposing an immediate moratorium on all juvenile fees and fines.
Jessica Feierman is senior managing director of Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia.
Jeffrey Selbin is director of the Policy Advocacy Clinic at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law.